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Updated: Apr 21, 2020

March 14, 2020 by Kathy Scott, PhD, and Bridget Sarikas

Leading in the New World: Slow Deep Breaths

March 14, 2020 by Kathy Scott, PhD, and Bridget Sarikas

How many times have you witnessed the slip of an elbow off the table, or a head drop and drool while attempting to get through yet another meeting with too much talk and not enough substance? How many times have you shown up to an obligated gathering simply to wonder why? Perhaps there is a silver lining to the pandemic we find ourselves in.

As consultants working with organizations that are seeking a better way, one of the worthwhile exercises we go through is to catalogue all, yes all, of the meetings that are convened to get the work done. Then we ask for the team charters – a document that spells out the purpose of the group, the membership, the goals and timelines to achieve results. If charters aren’t in place, we ask them to produce them. We often provide annualized estimates of the cost of a committee and ask if there is a good return on those dollars. And inevitably, an outcome of this exercise is the realization that many of their meetings are a waste of time, energy and money. Many meetings get eliminated at this point – particularly the ones that have been meeting for years and never seem to accomplish anything – and many teams reduce their meeting frequency to allow time to complete assignments before the next meeting.

Eliminating unproductive meetings is one way of physically distancing ourselves, as are virtual meetings. But we also know that staying in touch (figuratively) with our customers and employees is critical, not just to achieve organizational goals, but also from a human perspective.

So, how do we as leaders help our organizations creatively adjust to our new normal of added risk and added distancing? After all, most industries cannot close their doors and wait for a pandemic to end. The following are some suggestions from past pandemics and from our research of healthy organizations:

  • Plan through Scenarios. Forecast what could happen within your industry and organization under a variety of conditions that are not well understood today and develop possible solutions, particularly as it relates to adequate staffing, transportation, equipment and tools, space and systems to keep people safe. Involve your team in the conversation. This will require creativity and thinking way outside the box.

  • Understand risks. Create messages that help people understand three aspects of RISK: 1) We are all at risk; 2) We are all a risk; and 3) We can all minimize our risks. Researchers tell us that the coronavirus is spread through droplets of mucus or saliva. These droplets can be in the air, such as after a sneeze, and inhaled, or on a surface and touched by our hands. Our behavior, therefore, is central to protecting ourselves and others. Behavioral expectations, such as vigorous handwashing and social distancing, become critical as does peer-to-peer coaching and leadership follow-through on new expectations.

  • Facilitate dialogue about the organizational culture (underlying beliefs and assumptions that inform the behaviors). Ask if the culture is supportive of, or a barrier to, new expectations in the workplace. Really talk about it and have the courage to put the issues on the table. Avoid blame and stigmatization, and focus on solutions.

  • Stay informed. Find ways to keep your team informed of potential risks and solutions at both the local level and the national level. Assign a point person to stay on top of coronavirus trends.

  • Communicate, communicate, communicate (but don’t agitate). In these situations, you can never over-communicate. Keep your messaging short but to the point. Even though you may think everyone knows what you know – they generally do not as they are not receiving the same level of information you are. It is critical to keep your stakeholders, employees and customers informed. In other words - be the keeper of the calm!

  • Be attentive to the power gradient. When deploying new ways of doing business, find ways to keep people without power and privilege safe and whole. This can be very challenging and may require sacrificing some sacred cows along the way.

  • Provide adequate training. New processes will not be successful without an understanding of new expectations as well as the “why” behind them. For example, telling people to wear gloves without an understanding of when, why and how to wear and remove them will be an added expense without benefit if not done properly.

  • Create surveillance systems with immediate alerts and rapid responses. For example, have procedures in place for employees that encounter unsafe situations or conditions. Practice them. This will help build trust internally.

  • Invest in the redesign of workflows. Make doing the right thing easier, faster and more efficient. For example, having disinfectant solutions readily available, providing safe zones for interacting with customers, conducting more interactions virtually rather than in person.

  • Utilize technology. Now is the time to make real use of your laptop, smartphones, collaborative platforms (e.g., Zoom, Skype, etc.). Also, it’s time to save the trees – since in-person meetings may be halted for a time, you can stop printing agendas and meeting presentations – yahoo!

  • Focus on crowd control and human contact. Find alternatives to face-to-face meetings, assemblies and other gatherings using technology. Make it interesting and fun. Try new ways to draw people in such as team challenges, contests and humor. At the same time, make yourself visible and accessible to your team virtually and in person as needed, modeling new behaviors and expectations. Ban handshakes and replace them with a new tradition such as a familiar greeting (e.g., “May the force be with you”) or nod.

  • Take care of your own health. We can’t live in a bubble for the next several months, but there are many ways to lessen contact with crowds and practice healthier habits. Start with some basics such as getting adequate sleep, eating right, physical exercise in the great outdoors. Maintain an arms-length distance or more from others, wash your hands as if you have OCD (vigorously front and back, often and long), avoid touching your face, and stay home if under the weather. Who knows, this could be the start of a healthier you.

Titter Time: Stay calm


–Disney Pixar's Dory

Now it’s your turn. What are you doing as a leader to help get through this pandemic? We want to hear from you.

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